By Rick Zimmerman, NEAFA Executive Director
Three events occurred this month that encouraged me to reflect on our industry’s past, present and future. The NYS Pageant of Steam, my summer reading list, and Empire Farm Days all provided an opportunity to consider the course of history and appreciate the significance of human influence. This summer, my reading selection was In the Heart of the Sea, by Nathaniel Philbrick, a story of the demise of the whaling ship Essex. It’s a great read and said to be the basis of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. I highly recommend it. Empire Farm Days and the NYS Pageant of Steam both fell on the same week this month, and while they are only a few minutes drive from each other, they might as well be worlds apart. When pausing to reflect on this mashup of experiences, I find a thread weaving these elements together which provide a commentary for our industry.
Two hundred years ago, the whaling industry was a thriving, profitable part of the US economy. This valuable oil lit our streets at night, lubricated the industrial revolution and made the tiny island of Nantucket the whaling capital of the world. Today, we hardly think about this once monumental element of our history, because whale oil is entirely irrelevant to our modern lives. Research proved that there were better and more plentiful resources to use instead, and that technological trend continues to create new approaches for our energy needs. The motivation for alternatives to whale oil was inversely proportional to the availability of whales, and it was science andtechnology that allowed us to meet our energy needs without completely wiping out the world’s whale population.
One hundred twenty years ago, steam power was the state of the art tech that replaced the use of draft horses on farms. Four wheeled steam powered prairie tractors were giants of their day, and they plowed the furrow for the ever-evolving agricultural behemoth of the industry we are part of. The ingenuity behind the technical advancements required in harnessing steam was based on sound research, and the evolving petroleum fueled engines of today still benefit from continued research and development of this technology.
Today, Empire Farm Days represents one of the best displays of cutting-edge technology and state of the art agricultural research (Cornell College of Agriculture and Life Sciences maintains a significant presence of demonstrations and presentations). It is a graphic example that agricultural science and technology must continue to walk hand in hand to address our industry’s evolving challenges. Further, it is this side by side presence of technology and research that allows our industry, unlike the whaling industry, to adapt and remain relevant and competitive to this day.
However, given the current political and economic issues facing the agricultural industry, particularly in the northeast, I wonder if the time has come when we can no longer expect science and technology to be the salvation for our challenges. Have we crossed a line where the Northeast is no longer able to profitably provide agricultural products to the world? Have issues such as labor availability and costs, tariffs on US farm products, fear-based marketing by food companies, and societal ignorance of science, boxed us out as a region, as an industry?
Historically, with optimism, we conquered difficult challenges in soil and animal fertility, disease, pests, climate, exports, transportation, labor, etc., by employing the latest and greatest creations of science and technology. It is with optimism that I tell you that we can prevail over our current challenges using science and technology, and with the help of aggressive public policy engagement, beat back the current round of issues that our industry is facing. NEAFA is committed to remaining engaged in upcoming public policy discussions. Alongside our collaborative partners and with your active support through memberships, sponsorships, and direct engagement with consumers, we have the means to do so. We have also, through your generous support, actively fueled agricultural research needs with the establishment of two new facility positions in Cornell’s Department of Animal Science. Joe McFadden and Kristan Reed, the NEAFA Partners Sesquicentennial Fellows, are contributing to the advancement of agricultural science, applying their knowledge and skills for the betterment of animal agriculture throughout the Northeast and the rest of the world.
US agriculture has become the most successful agricultural industry in the world primarily because of science and technology. Unlike the whaling industry, we will remain relevant and profitable for decades and centuries to come. provided we continue to engage science, technology and public policy in shaping our future.